Posts Tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’

The 2011 National Book Festival in Washington D.C.– A Great Time As Always !

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Although, sadly,  our schedule only allowed us to attend the Sunday portion of the 2011 National Book Festival held in Washington D.C. the week-end of  Sept. 24-25th,  we all still had a great time !   ( “We”  being self,  husband,  Eldest Daughter, a granddaughter and a grandson. )   We drove up from the Eastern Shore of Virginia late Saturday and as forecast,  Sunday dawned  misty, cloudy, definitely looking like rain any minute,  but I was completely prepared…  plastic rain ponchos, bright blue (  no losing anyone in your group in those neon things ),  small umbrellas for everyone,  books to be autographed completely safe from the rain enclosed in zip-lock bags  and stowed in 2 plastic rolling coolers which,  thankfully, served as mobile chairs as well as waterproof storage bins.   Happily,  it never did actually rain but the clouds kept things cool which was so great,  baking in the sun is not my thing.

The National Mall Which Stretches From The Capitol Building To The Lincoln Memorial

The  Book Festivals are sponsored annually by the Library of Congress and are held on the National Mall,  a long green space which more or less stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building.  The Book Festival is held on the portion which runs from 7th Street to 14th Street,  essentially from the Washington Monument to the Capitol building, a distance of  probably a half  mile.   However, when hoofing around,  pulling  what seems to be a 1000 pound cooler full of books,  I  can tell you it seems much, much longer !   This year’s Festival featured 112 authors divided into genres like  History and Biography,  Fiction and Mystery, Contemporary Life, Poetry and Prose,  The Cutting Edge,  Graphic Novels, Teens and Children.  Each author was allotted about 45 minutes to speak, scheduled in  the appropriate genre pavilion  and then an hour afterwards for signing books in the book signing area.  Fortunately the speeches are videoed  to be added to the  Library of Congress website so everyone can hear each author’s speech on-line– this is so, so helpful because  if you want to get books autographed by a popular author it is necessary to get in that author’s line long, long before the scheduled signing making  it virtually  impossible to hear an author’s  speech live and also get  their books signed too. Naturally, Murphy’s Law, the little individual tents for the book signings are at one end of the Mall and the various 8 or 9  pavilions where the authors actually speak are stretched out from there to the other end of the Mall,  hence the necessity for hoofing around on shank’s mare for the various events.

Pavilions At The Book Festival

Upon arrival about 11:00 am,  my husband headed out to listen to the speeches at  the “Contemporary Pavilion”  while I made a bee line for  book signing Tent #  14  where a  favorite author and raconteur  was scheduled to begin his signings at 2:00 pm.    Wondering who ?   Think old red tennis shoes, fire engine red sox, a  red tie  and the phrase, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,  my home town.”   Yes, none other than the supremely talented Garrison Keillor,  author of  16 books, editor of  numerous other books as well as the  host and guiding light behind   “A Prairie Home Companion“ ,  heard Saturday nights on National Public Radio, sponsored by Powdered Milk Buscuits  which  “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done”  and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery -  “if you can’t find it at Ralph’s you probably don’t need it !  “   We were about  7th or 8th in the Keillor line and I held our place while my daughter slipped over to journalist Bob Edward’s tent where he had just begun his signings.  My husband and Youngest Son both enjoy listening to Bob Edwards on XM Radio so I had copies  of his new book,  ” A Voice In The Box : My Life In Radio” ready to  be autographed as  Christmas gifts for them.

Garrison Keillor Signing Books At 2011 The National Book Festival

Garrison Keillor arrived on the dot of 2:00  and after speaking briefly with Bob Edwards,  who had come over to say hello from the adjacent tent,  his initial  order of business was to shake hands and have the official Festival photographer take a picture of  him with the  very first person in line.  I have often wondered if some of these authors realize what an effort it is for folks,  many of us not exactly spring chickens,  to stand in line for hours and hours just to say hello and get a book  signed.  Clearly Mr. Keillor understood  because not only did he make a nice fuss over Person # 1  (who probably had been in line  forever ), but  instead of  sitting at the table and chair set up at each tent for the authors,  Garrison Keillor  actually stood up for the entire time that he signed books  (which was much longer than an hour because his audience  had stretched all the way back to the street before they closed the line down to additional entrants.)   He was quite  gracious, personalized signings if requested, spoke to every  person,  had a question or funny remark for most,  big smiles.  (  Told me,  deadpan expression,  that the first edition I had of his first  Lake Wobegon book, Lake Wobegon Days,  was  so old that it couldn’t be  worth much,  maybe $5.00,  possibly I could get rid of  it at a garage sale. )   Upon personalizing a book for her,  he inquired about the derivation of  Eldest Daughter’s  first name,  Montaigne,  ( from Michel de Montaigne,  noted essayist and 16th century French philosopher,   whose essay on the education of children could still be a shining example to teachers everywhere).   Both of them had a good laugh when she explained how she had hated her name as a  child and had tried to convince her 4th grade  teacher that she was to be called Linda – - – which I only found out about when Montaigne came home with her papers signed as Linda !

Neal Stephenson was another scheduled author  whose books  I had packed in my cooler including  a first edition of one of my favorite books,  Cryptonomicon. A  blockbuster of a book which starts with War II,  it’s filled with more information than a non-mathematician would ever need to know about secret codes, cryptology, engineering  and the invention of the “Turing Machine”, the precursor to modern computers.  Alternating chapters create a story set in the 1990′s, the characters being descendants of the WWII characters who are using advanced telecom and  computer technology to create a secret data haven.  And along the way one also learns the best way to eat Captain Crunch !  Doesn’t sound that great but I can tell you it’s mesmerising !   I love long books because if you really are enjoying a book you don’t want it to end —  happily,  this book goes along for  over 900 pages, each page a joy – - except for the really detailed math pages but if you are a non-math person like me… well those pages are best just skipped over !

Neal Stephenson

China Express Restaurant In Washington DC, Home Of Delicious Homemade Noodles

After the Neal Stephenson signings there was still  time to slip over to hear Bob Edward’s lecture in the contemporary pavilion, quite interesting,  then a fast walk through a few of the other pavilions  and finally off to dinner in D.C.’s Chinatown.  We had a delicious meal at a Zagat reviewed restaurant, China Express at 746  6th Street, NW,  highly recommended in numerous reviews and rightly so.  The steaming hot noodle soup with pork slices was delicious,  tasty handmade noodles  properly chewy,  the roast pork buns lived up to their reputation and the eggplant in garlic sauce was absolutely perfect, a  melt- in-your- mouth dish with  a deliciously spicy sauce.   Definitely not much in the way of decor but excellent food,  generous helpings,  fast service,  the grandkids had a ball slurping up the long noodles, everyone agreed we had to eat here again when next in town.   We left  pleasantly full,  the day ended,  goodbye  2011 National Book Festival,  hello Eastern Shore.  Can’t wait until spring when the Library of Congress  announces  the 2012  Festival authors !
P.S.  I always love to hear about corporate giving for education and a shout-out to  Target is due here.  According to the official Festival brochure,  Target was the Distinguished Corporate Benefactor of the 2011 National Book Festival and  the company is on track to having donated one billion dollars  (that’s billion with a  B )  to education by 2015 through a program whereby  it donates 5%  of its income each year to the cause of improving education, particularly reading skills.

(Posted by Marlene Cree, licensed Virginia agent with Blue Heron Realty Co., 7134  Wilsonia Neck Dr., Machipongo, VA)

A List Of My 5 Favorite Spy Novels And TV Series About World War II And The Cold War

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

I’ve had a little tune running around in my head for the past few days,  the  tune apparently often hummed or whistled by the French Resistance  as an informal  password during World War II.  Not that I have been hob-nobbing with anyone from the French Resistance lately but  ever since I got a  copy of  one of  my  favorite books,   Neal Stephenson’s  “Cryptonomicon“,  autographed during a week-end trip to Washington D.C. to attend the  Sept., 2011 National Book Festival,   I’ve been getting back into WWII  literature.   This then led to re-watching on DVD  the absolutely top notch,  terrifically suspenseful  BBC series 1, 2 and 3  of   “Wish Me Luck“.  A mini-series  featuring fictionalized stories of  real-life British spies, primarily women, it details the heroism of those  working undercover together with the Resistance in Occupied France and the theme song of  Series 2 and 3 consists of a few bars of that tune.  ( Not that they tell you this,  but one eventually figures it out. )

At any rate,  having that little tune ping-ponging around in my head has made me think about the  many spy novels and TV espionage series that I have enjoyed over the years and I decided to make a little list of the ones I have enjoyed the most.  There is almost nothing more enjoyable on a balmy Eastern Shore of  Virginia summer’s day, ( or a breezy spring or a crisp fall day for that matter ),  than sitting out on the screened porch,  bees buzzing,  birds singing, boats going by every once in a while,  ice cold tea at the elbow,  an exciting book in hand  and the time available to read it,  that’s the life of Riley for sure.  So…  the following  5  books are my  “spook”  favorites,  the top 4 re-read at least once,  maybe  twice,  because to me re-reading a book I  loved is like reuniting with an old friend.  Seriously, who could read “Gone With The Wind” or  “Hawaii“   just once  ??   Most of  the following cloak and dagger favorites  are set in Europe during the Cold War  but  ”Schoolboy”, one of my  tied -for- 1st place espionage suspense novels,  is set during the Cold War period but  the action takes place   primarily in Viet Nam  and Hong Kong.

1.  “The Honorable Schoolboy”   by John Le Carre’  tied with  “Tinker,Tailor,Soldier, Spy”  also by John Le Carre’ , who had,  in real life,  actually been a part of the  British Secret Service.  It’s interesting to me that in an interview where he was asked what he considered his best work,  he did not list “Schoolboy“  but did list “Tinker,Tailor“.  Nevertheless,  “Schoolboy“,  which is his longest book  by far, running to almost  600  pages in paperback,  has a complicated story line which moves deftly between Asia and the UK,  and is still my personal  favorite even if it is not the author’s.  (  I confess that I am prone to prefer long books because once I get interested in a character,  I like them to stick around for a while ! )

2. “The Company“  by Robert Littel.  Also a very long book, close to 900 pages, this is a great read, each and every pages, which is sometimes not  the case  in  long  novels.  Utilizing all the bells and whistles of the trade,  this is a thoroughly  intriguing story of the struggle between the CIA and the KGB  to discover  ( or keep secret, depending on which  side one is on )   the identity of  a deeply placed KGB mole.  Explores  in detail  number of historical events and seems very much in-the-know about the inner workings of  the CIA.  Definitely is one of those books where once you start,  you just want to keep on reading  even if it is past midnight and you have to get up early the next day !

3.”The Charm School”  by Nelson DeMille.  This book is set in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and gives an amazingly realistic picture of Russia of that time. It’s a fascinating story, another one of those can’t-put-it down novels. It seems like every time DeMille comes out with a new book they also do a reprint addition of  “Charm School” so I have given copies of  this book as a gift to several people, all of whom loved it too.  In his new forward to one of the latest reprints,  DeMille indicates that this book had at one point  become suggested  reading for new  US foreign service officers which lends some interesting credibility to the story line.   DeMille has written a number of  excellent novels  but I think this is his very best,  with “Word Of Honor“ ,  an unusual combination of  a courtroom suspense drama and a Viet Nam era war novel,  coming in a close second.

4.”Cryptomicon”  by Neal Stephenson.   ( Did I mention, maybe for the 10th time,  that I now have a  personalized signed copy ? )  Technically not a true spy story but  it does have its great spy moments.   Plus endless and fascinating detail on the  WWII code breaking efforts which led to the invention of the computer,  some details of  which are  probably best understood by tech whizzes.  Nevertheless,  it is a fabulous book,  initially set at the outbreak of WWII  and continuing forward for decades thereafter.  Interesting and funny, extremely well written, covering many issues.  At nearly 900 pages,  plotted  in alternating chapters between the War period and present day,  there is plenty of time to enjoy the myriad of  characters and their offspring  as they traverse  the world,  doing lots of wild things.  Plus the good guys win, who could ask for anything more ?

5. “The Unlikely Spy”   by Daniel Silva.  Although most of Daniel Silva’s  subsequent books have featured a very interesting character named Gabriel Allon and are set in in current times, ( my favorite of those being “The Secret Servant” ),   ”The  Unlikely  Spy”  is set  during the Cold War and  proceeds at a very fast pace.  It  has all the satisfying complexities  and duplicities one expects in such a book plus, unusual for Silva,  a sadly ambiguous ending,  the very sort one always expects from Le Carre’.

And  the TV spies ?   Nobody does espionage on the telly like  the  BBC,  hands down,  nobody else can  hold a candle to BBC.  So here is a list of my favorites, not all BBC,  and  several  are among  my favorite cloak and dagger books which have been dramatized for  television or film.

1.Wish Me LuckThis BBC series, 3 seasons altogether,   is hold- your- breath dramatic.  Based on real life, the characters are completely realistic.  Gives a real sense of what the risks were for undercover agents during World War II and a program everyone should watch as a little reminder of the serious  sacrifices made behind the lines by so many during the War.

2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.   A  6 part mini-series of the Le Carre’s book by the same  title.  Staring  Alec Guinness, this is a very dramatic production and handles the multiple sub-plots very well which I’m sure wasn’t easy to do in the time allotted.

3. The Sleepers .  A fall-off-the-sofa-laughing  mini-series,  by BBC,  who else.  Staring  Warren Clarke and Nigel Havers,  the plot is very simple —  after 20 years, two deep cover Soviet sleeper spies living in the UK get called to active duty but they have become too comfortable as  British citizens and revolt against  the call to duty.  The antics and carryings on as the KGB hunts them down  are  simply hilarious, quite different from most  espionage productions, everyone I’ve loaned this DVD to has  simply loved it.

4. “A Perfect Spy”  ties  for 4th place with “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”  staring Richard BurtonBoth are John Le Carre’  superb novels made into superb dramas.  And both with such sad, sad endings.   That is one of the things one must be prepared to accept about Le Carre’s work–  the endings are usually quite sad or very ambiguous.  As a person who prefers  a happy or at least a somewhat less sad ending,  I find, for me,   it is not my favorite aspect of  his work.  Not looking for Pollyanna but maybe a light at the end of the tunnel  which is not the on-coming train  ?

5. The Man Who Knew Too Little  staring Bill Murray ties  with Hopscotch  staring  Walter Matthau,  both American made films, staring well-known American actors.  Like  BBC’s  Sleepers,  both of these  movies are absolutely hilarious.   Bill Murray turns in what I think is one of  his  best performances ever in this comedy about spies and mistaken identity.   In  Hopscotch, Matthau and co-star Sam Waterston, longtime  favorites of mine,  are outstanding,  filmed 1980,  shot on  location in Austria,  the UK and Washington DC., it’s  absolutely delightful.  Such fun,  check out both of  these funny, funny movies.

So those are some of  my personal espionage favorites.  If  anyone decides to check them out,  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.   Maybe you’ll even find one or two that you’ll put  on your  ”read again”  or  “see again”  list.  Bon appetit’.

(Posted by Marlene Cree, licensed Virginia agent with Blue Heron Realty Co., 7134  Wilsonia Neck Dr., Machipongo, VA)